Local Residents Deserve Targeted Marketing: How to Build Community Support For Economic Development

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In almost every presentation I give, I talk about my “Four-Column Activity.”  The concept isn’t unique to my practice, but this is the simplest way that I’ve found to explain the development of a marketing strategy.  Start by folding a piece of paper into four columns.  In the first column, write your objective.  In the second column, write the audience that impacts this objective. In the third column, write what information related to this objective your audience needs to hear from you.  And in the fourth column, write what tactic(s) you’ll use in your marketing.  As you move through the columns from right to left, you’ll formulate your strategy. “I’ll use this tactic to convey this message to this audience in order to achieve this objective.”

When defining objectives and audiences, many communities focus on business attraction, retention, and expansion.  Since their objective is to attract jobs, they define their audiences as site consultants and businesses.  While true, there’s another audience that can greatly impact your economic development efforts.  Their support (or lack thereof) can make or break a project.  And yet, they’re often not considered during the development of a marketing strategy.  As you’ve likely surmised from the title, this audience is local residents.


I’m not talking about marketing to residents as part of a talent attraction or retention campaign. I’m talking about marketing the EDO to residents to build community support for projects and initiatives.  Your primary objective should be to establish a base level of knowledge about economic development.  Other objectives may include building community support for projects, managing expectations, and reducing conflict.


While every community has a handful of engaged citizens that participate in committees and attend council meetings, the vast majority of residents have likely never even heard of economic development.  These are people who are impacted by attraction and expansion projects, will participate in workforce development programs, and will vote in elections. They deserve to know what’s going on in their community and how their leaders are shaping their economic future.

I’ll add an asterisk here to say that not all residents will be open to receiving your message. There’s a group people we refer to as CAVE men – Citizens Against Virtually Everything.  They’re always going to complain.  They’re always going to be upset.  They’re never going to like you.  There’s only so much energy you should expend trying to articulate your message to them.  Instead, focus on the people who have either1) a malleable opinion of you or 2) no opinion of you.  That’s where you have room to make actual progress.


We’ve established that your primary objective should be to establish a base understanding of economic development among your residents.  What are the gaps in knowledge?  Most people only hear from or about the EDO when there’s a project announcement.  Then, it could be a couple of years until the ribbon cutting.  If they don’t hear from you in the intervening period, they’re going to think you aren’t doing anything.  It’s the whole “out of sight, out of mind” thing.  You need to be consistently updating the public on what happens between these big announcements.  This can include prepping for and attending trade shows; holding meetings with school administrators, utility providers, local employers, small business owners, etc.; preparing available properties for development; and hosting tours of CTE facilities.

Once you’ve progressed toward your goal of educating the community on what the EDO does, you can begin work on your secondary objectives: building community support for projects, managing expectations, and reducing conflict.  At their core, these objectives center around ensuring that residents understand what a project means to the community.  Not everyone is going to be directly affected by a jobs project (i.e. they won’t work there), so they struggle to see how it impacts them. This is where there’s an opportunity to demonstrate the direct correlation between a project and improved quality of life through improvements to transportation, utilities, dining, retail, schools, and more.  St. Petersburg and Clearwater, Florida, have a whole campaign encouraging residents to be nice to tourists because tourists are the reason there are nice roads, great shopping and dining, and decent public transit.


Social Media

I don’t have to tell you that social media is often the best way to communicate with locals, but selecting the right method is more nuanced.  When using social media to market to residents it’s crucial that you meet them where they are.  If we’re being honest, we all know you aren’t going to get a huge local following on your economic development Instagram account.  You can, however, partner with organizations that already have a substantial following.  My favorite example of this is the City of Tampa Waste Management Department.

Like most cities, Tampa has an initiative to increase recycling participation.  Instead of creating an Instagram account for the Waste Management Department and explaining their recycling rules to a couple dozen people, they share their content on the City of Tampa’s Instagram with its whopping 136k followers.  This allows them to get their message out to a larger audience without having to put in the labor of growing their own following.

Over the past few years, social media trends have shifted toward authenticity and more behind-the-scenes content versus the curated aesthetic that was popular pre-COVID.  That’s why you see candle companies eschewing artsy shots of their candles in favor of videos of them pouring hot wax into jars. People want to see how things are made, and this can extend to economic development projects.  This could include photos and videos of you touring a CTE facility, meeting with a local employer, looking at a transformer with your power company rep, buying coffee at a local café, visiting your town’s newest mural, etc.  By posting content about your day-to-day experiences, you’ll bring the public into what economic development actually is and demonstrate its direct effects on the community.


Surrogates are people selected to assist in communicating about our economic development efforts to the public.  They do not necessarily participate in the project attraction process, but they do directly influence public perception.  They stand in for the economic developer at events and speak to the media on their behalf.  They may include community leaders, members of partner organizations, and local social media influencers.

I suggest meeting with surrogates quarterly or monthly in order to update them on the recent activities of the EDO.  While I’m fully aware that much of the site selection process is shrouded in NDA secrecy, there’s a lot that can be shared publicly.  In my experience, most residents aren’t all that interested in the fine detail.  They’re satisfied with the high-level overview of trade shows, site visits, and planning sessions.  A surrogate’s message, put simply, is “We’re doing stuff.”

Key Takeaways

Local residents can have significant influence on the economic growth of a community. Unfortunately, many economic development organizations do not view the mas a target audience for marketing.  Marketing to a local audience shouldn’t be treated as an afterthought.  They deserve a carefully constructed campaign that addresses their immediate needs and concerns.  By providing strategic insights into the site selection process and showing what work goes on behind the scenes, EDOs can build a foundational level of knowledge and support among residents.